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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Do "Ancient Biographies" Always Present Reliable History?

I was listening to the William Craig--Richard Carrier debate today and something jumped out at me. Craig argued that the gospels should be considered as real history because they are in the literary genre called "ancient biographies." I remember Craig Keener and Mike Licona making similar claims at the 2009 Apologetics Conference in New Orleans.

It is true that most scholars believe that the gospels are written in the same literary form as the "ancient biographies." Does the fact that they are written in this genre, however, demand that they be accepted as always presenting reliable history? I maintain that it does not.

Karl Ludwig Schmidt, in The place of the Gospels in the general history of literature (German published 1923; English translation by Byron McCane 2001), writes:
Since the Gospels do represent biography of some sort, however, we need to clarify the essence of ancient biography, In Weber Votaw's opinion [The Gospels and Contemporary Biographies, American Journal of Theology 19 {1915} 45ff.], there were two types: precise, objective, historical biography; and practical pedagogical, popular biography. The latter type, which was largely confiend to antiquity, depicts and glorifies specific heroes. Popular biographies of this sort were especially plentiful during the centuries immediately before and after Christ including Xenophon's Memorabilia, Arrian's Epictetus and Philostratus's Apollonius of Tyana.(p. 3)

Skeptics have often put forth the idea that the story of Jesus was a "copycat" of the story of Apollonius. I do not wish to debate the merits of that argument right now, but simply point out that the Life of Apollonius is in the literary genre of an ancient biography and even Christian apologists would reject its miraculous stories about Apollonius. If they would reject the Life of Apollonius as unhistorical, then why not the Gospels, since they are in the same literary form?

Jona Lendering, in the introduction to the on-line English translation of Flavius Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius, writes:

In the Life of Apollonius, the Athenian author Philostratus, a sophist who lived from c.170 to c.247, tells the story of Apollonius of Tyana, a charismatic teacher and miracle worker from the first century CE who belonged to the school of Pythagoras. It is an apologetic work, in which Philostratus tries to show that Philostratus was a man with divine powers, but not a magician. He also pays attention to Apollonius' behavior as a sophist.

Arnold Meyer, in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 5 (1913, 2151ff), quoted in Schmidt (pp. 21-22) compares the gospels to the Hellenistic miracle literature which was prevalent in the first century of the Christian era. He writes:
oral traditions were collected, along with notes, letters, and documents both genuine and falsified. . . . Miracle stories were strung together, and a biography of the miracle-worker was formed, starting with the first miracle and leading to an amazing conclusion after a remarkable series of events, including healings, persecutions, accusations, and imprisonment. Even the birth of the hero was bathed in miraculous light . . . Clever conversations with friends and foes were then added, including pleas of defense before civil magistrates.

Schmidt has this to say about the 4th Gospel(p. 21):
In the Gospel of John, the miracles of Jesus are narrated, and then the signs are discussed; and in the same way ancient biographies of miracle workers also made changes, additions, and accentuations, selecting them from a virtually inexhaustible supply (Jn. 20:35; 21:25).

I can hear some apologists crying, "The Life of Apollonius does not fit the characteristics of an ancient biography." I disagree and so do the scholars I have quoted but for the sake of argument, lets say its not the typical ancient biography. Okay, how about the writings of Plutarch (46 -127 CE)? All agree that his Parallel Lives represents the literary genre of the ancient biography.

Does Plutarch always present historical facts in his biographies? Listen to Tracy Deline:

Plutarch sometimes "improved on the truth." Plutarch was still not always accurate. Aside from simple memory-related errors, such as interchanging insignificant names, Plutarch seemed to emphasize different versions of a series of events in different Lives so as to accentuate the role (or a specific characteristic) of the various men. C.B.R. Pelling (Plutarch's Life of Antony, p. 36) states that "in such cases, he was improving on the truth, and he knew it (Ancient Biography).

The following is from Biography - Ancient Biography, Medieval And Renaissance Biography, The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, The Nineteenth And Twentieth Centuries:
Many of the earliest "histories" were biographical accounts of the lives of important historical figures. Biography often has been associated with the field of history (and at times has been considered a branch of it), but distinctions between them were drawn beginning in ancient times. Whereas the writers of histories always have purported to present the truth accurately, biographers more obviously have praised their subjects or have presented them as exemplars for moral or didactic (educational) purposes. . . . The mixture of fiction with fact in biography means that it has much in common with imaginative literature.

More on Plutarch's writing style (from
Plutarch's biographies often focus on anecdotes about the subject, while omitting details of his (and it always is 'his') career that we would love to know. Although the biographies are comparatively short (mostly between 20 and 30 pages long), Plutarch cannot resist digressions on anything that catches his interest. See, for example, the digression on the Athenians? treatment of retired beasts of burden in his life of Cato the Elder. Plutarch is also very interested in omens and frequently notes prodigious events, such as monstrous births, that preceded any great battle or the death of his subject.

Hector Avalos (The End of Biblical Studies, p. 120) has this to say about Plutarch:
Consider also the case of Plutarch, the Greek historian, whose biography, title Ceasar, forms another of the most quoted sources for the assassination story. Plutarch has a separate biography, titled Brutus, for one of the alleged conspirators. However, these two biographies don’t always agree on important details. In Caesar (66.4), Plutarch says that a man named Decimus Brutus Albinus delayed Antony’s entrance into the senate-house, where the assassination is said to have taken place. But in Brutus (17.2), Plutarch says it was a man named Trebonius who detained Antony.
According to C.B.R. Pelling, who is a meticulous empiricist, “It is possible that Plutarch has deliberately distorted the narrative in Caesar by transferring the act to D. Brutus: such techniques are not unknown in his work” (Plutarch’s Method of Work in the Roman Lives, Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 {1979}: 79). Pelling presents examples where Plutarch provides contradictory dates for events, as well as cases where Plutarch attributes speeches to Antony and Cassius that were attributed to Casesar in other passages.

Another clear example of an ancient biography is Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars . The website has this to say about Lives of the Caesars
It covers the lives of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors, from Augustus to Domitian. . . .It concentrates on the personal lives of its subjects, and their more interesting peccadilloes, which is probably why it has survived. How much is fact and how much is just gossip and rumour is difficult to say.

Suetonius, in the Life of Vespasian (7.13), claims that the Emperor once cured the blind and the lame through the power of of the god Serapis. I wonder is Christian apologists such as Craig or Licona accept this claim as historical fact?

Dale C. Allison in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet writes concerning the general reliability of sacred biographies:
Hagiographical traditions and sacred biographies written by the devotees of a founder or religious savior are notoriously unreliable. Tradents gather what they can and concoct what they cannot gather, often reaping what their founder did not sow. The result is that everywhere history coalesces with myth....Once we doubt, as all modern scholars do, that the Jesus tradition gives us invariably accurate information, unvarnished by exaggeration and legend, it is incumbent upon us to find some way of sorting through the diverse traditions to divine what really goes back to Jesus. (p.1-2)
I am sure more examples could be produced but this is sufficient to show that the ancient biography genre does not always record genuine history. For Craig to argue, as he does in the debate with Carrier, that just because the gospels are in the literary form of the ancient biography they must be accepted as presenting real historical facts is flat wrong.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. But the thing to keep in mind is that Craig is not concerned with the truth.

    He still hasn't corrected his Kalam Cosmological argument even though modern advances in physics has shewn how flawed it is.

    It's one thing to believe in something and have a novel theory which supports your belief... it's entirely another thing to drag that theory kicking and screaming behind you like the luggage it is when other physicists have pointed out your errors.

    If Craig was concerned with the truth, he'd fix his error and update his theory. He just flat out refuses to, because it works so well for his rhetoric. Craig's concern is to CONVINCE and win souls for Christ.

    But this makes me distrust everything else he says, because he promises truths by offering lies. That's no way to prove your argument, but it will win a few debates I suppose.

    Also, very informative article. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Tristin,

    You are exactly right about Craig. See this post.

  4. Craig's concern is to CONVINCE and win souls for Christ.

    And in so doing, convince himself that he's right.

  5. Having sound arguments isn't that important when you've got the "inner testimony of the holy spirit" like Craig does.

  6. It is true that most scholars believe that the gospels are written in the same literary form as the "ancient biographies." Does the fact that they are written in this genre, however, demand that they be accepted as always presenting reliable history? I maintain that it does not.

    To add to this, the goal of the ancient writer was mostly to use the biography to show the writer's own attitude about some event or human quality. For example, when Xenophon was writing the Cyrus the Lesser part of the Anabasis his goal was to show what the ideal king was like. So he played up, exaggerated, and probably outright invented good qualities for Cyrus and downplayed or suppressed negative qualities.

    The other issue, meanwhile, is the quote. If an ancient luminary is recorded as giving a rousing speech there's a 100% chance that the speech didn't actually say what is recorded. The historian and/or biographer recorded the gist of the speech (or, again, possibly made things up).

    As such, assuming Jesus the Nazarene actually existed and did what the Bible says, we can make two assumptions about the Gospel accounts.

    First, Jesus's biographers would have, as a matter of course, played up certain aspects of Jesus's personality. We can see that, and Biblical scholars even admit it in a circumspect way. The four Gospels are regarded as being directed to four different audiences. I forget the split, but I know that John is a gnostic Gospel, one is directed at a Jewish audience, one at a Gentile, etc.

    Second, we can also say that the things Jesus "said" aren't things that he actually said. The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, wasn't probably so neat, clean, and pithy.

    Oh, and, as a third: the crowds to which Jesus spoke were probably drastically exaggerated.

  7. Very informative post and comments. Thanks!

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.